Hamilton Russell
Visiting one of South Africa's most interesting wine regions, Hemel-en-Aarde, part 4

Tasting with Olive and Anthony Hamilton Russell

The Hamilton Russell story is a remarkable one.

Back in 1975, advertising executive Tim Hamilton-Russell bought 170 hectares (400 acres) of undeveloped land not far from Hermanus, and only a short distance from the cold Atlantic ocean. And in 1976 he planted a vineyard. Viewed from the perspective of the South African wine industry at the time, which was heavily controlled with a quota system, this was utter madness. Among other varieties, he managed to get some Chardonnay vines (which were very hard to come by at the time), and some Pinot Noir (also rare), and he pioneered what is now one of the most exciting wine regions in the Cape: Hemel-en-Aarde.

‘We were here 10 years ahead of the rest of the pack, not by insight, but by accident,’ says Tim’s son, Anthony Hamilton Russell, who took over from his father in 1991. ‘There had been some grapes in the area, but nothing with a label,’ says Peter Finlayson, who was the first winemaker for Hamilton Russell, and who built the winery. ‘We used pretty much all the noble varieties,’ says Anthony. ‘But we didn’t have Chardonnay initially. We smuggled Chardonnay in.’ Nowadays, Hamilton Russell specializes in just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The first wine released was the 1981 Pinot Noir. In the 32 subsequent vintages, there have been four winemakers. Peter Finlayson left in 1990, to be replaced by Storm Kreusch-Dau (1991-1994), who was replaced by Kevin Grant (1995-2004) who then left to found Ataraxia. Current winemaker is Hannes Storm (2005 to present).

‘We are approximately 2500 m away from the Atlantic ocean’, says Anthony Hamilton Russell. ‘There’s nothing between us and Antartica, where our clay-rich soils make, in our opinion, unusually European, classically styled Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.’

The estate vineyards cover 52 hectares, and the focus is exclusively  on the two Burgundian varieties. ‘We are incredibly proud that by accident of fate and terroir our soil and site affords us a chance to produce unusually classically styled Pinot and Chardonnay near the southern tip of the African continent,’ says Anthony Hamilton Russell. ‘Our Pinot noir has a degree of savouriness and structure that goes beyond straight varietal expression. People say it is hard to work with Pinot Noir. I don’t think it is. It is not how to make it, but where to make it, and if you get where to make it wrong then you can try as hard as you like  but it will never be good.’

‘It is an uncomplex variety without much tannin our colour, but it shines in some sites and transcends the variety. We are lucky to get that here, with some tannic structure and depth, a degree of savouriness to augment the beautiful fruit perfume you can get.’

For so long the star winery in the region, Hamilton Russell is now facing some serious competition from excellent newcomers. But they haven’t stood still, and as the wines below show, the game has been raised here. As well as the Hamilton Russell wines, I’m reviewing a couple from Ashbourne, which is their sister label for a pair of high end Pinotage and Sauvignon-based wines.


Ashbourne Sandstone 2007 Walker Bay, South Africa
85% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Chardonnay, made in 160 litre amphorae. They started working with terracotta in 2005 but found it was too porous, so these amphorae are made from stoneware. They lose 1.5% over 9 months, so this is the same evaporation rate as a barrel. There are 14 in the cellar and 4% of the 2012 Chardonnay was done this way. Fruity, rounded and lively with some texture and a bit of spice, as well as some grip. Pretty, textured and fine. 92/100

Ashbourne 2007 Walker Bay, South Africa
A blend of 82% Pinotage, 9% Syrah and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. 4 year's bottle age before release. 13.3% alcohol. Savoury, meaty, spicy nose with subtle green notes and some tar. The palate is ripe, sweet and spicy with some savoury notes and hints of earth and tar, alongside black cherry fruit. Nice balance of sweetness and savouriness. 91/100

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2009 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
A great vintage. Supple, savoury and sweet with some bright cherry fruit. Structured with juicy acidity. Lovely structure: it's not just about the sweet fruit. Quite pure with nice presence. 92/100

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2010 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
This vintage saw the benefit of a new racking regime. Very pure, supple and fine. Linear and silky with lovely fruit. Sappy cherry fruit. Stylish and quite profound, showing great precision and purity. 95/100

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2011 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
This was a tricky vintage with half the usual production level. Fine, expressive red cherry fruit. Supple with lovely precision and hints of pepper. Maybe lacking a little depth? But still, it's a lovely wine that's fresh, sappy and fine. 93/100

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2012 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
Aromatic, fresh and pure with fine cherry fruit,some sappy notes and hints of clove and cinnamon.  Lovely precision here. 94/100

Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2009 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
Nut, spice and a bit of toast as well as rich, ripe pear and melon fruit. Just a hint of matchstick minerality. Fine, expressive and stylish: a complete wine. 93/100

Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2010 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
Complex and taut with citrus, spice and herbs. Very fresh and showing good concentration, with broad toasty notes adding depth to the pear and white peach fruit. 94/100

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2011 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
1% from amphora. Very expressive nutty nose with citrus, spice and some peachy richness. Fine and expressive, showing pear and citrus fruit on the palate. Lovely precision: lemons and fine herbs, good acidity. 94/100

Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2012 Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa
4% from amphora. Very aromatic nose of pear and citrus. The palate is fine, fresh and expressive with citrus and pear notes. Pure with lovely precision to the fruit and a bit of toastiness. Subtle and lovely. 94/100 

Older notes from 2011:

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2009 Hemel en Aarde Valley, South Africa
13% alcohol. Beautifully complex Chardonnay. Pithy, fresh and citrussy with some white peach and pear fruit, as well as aromatic honeysuckle and nut notes. There’s also a bit of wood spice. Lively, concentrated and intense with tangy lemon and grapefruit freshness. Drink now, or leave to mellow with age. 92/100

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2008 Hemel en Aarde Valley, South Africa
13.5% alcohol. Pale cherry red colour. Fresh, savoury, spicy nose with some hints of earth and roast coffee. Quite tight, and perhaps a little reduced. The palate shows bright, fresh berry fruits with green sappy notes, and some stern grippy, savoury structure. A fine expression of Pinot that avoids over-extraction but needs some time to shed its savoury youthfulness. Evolves nicely over a couple of days. 91/100

From October 2010:

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Chardonnay 2009 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
Taut, intense, fresh nutty nose with a lively citrussy character. The palate is lively and fresh with good concentration of flavour and fresh acidity. Brilliantly fresh. 92/100

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2009 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
Distinctive rich, spicy nose with vibrant raspberry and cherry fruit. The palate has nice purity of berry fruit with good acidity and subtly herby, earthy twist keeping it savoury. Rich in style, but impressive nonetheless. 91/100

Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006 Walker Bay, South Africa
Intense, spicy and earthy with distinctive savoury characters. Aromatic and interesting. The palate is fresh showing bright cherry fruit and some savoury, earthy, spicy evolution. Tannic and intense. 90/100

Visiting Hemel-en-Aarde

Bouchard Finlayson
Newton Johnson
Hamilton Russell
Restless River

Wines tasted 03/13  
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